October 15, 2006

Dietetic phonetics, exposed!

Here's the latest shocker from that bastion of journalistic integrity, The Weekly World News:


Hey, if the BBC Science Section can report, with a straight face, "'Vowels to blame' for German grumpiness," then is this headline really so far-fetched?

WWN has really nailed the art of faux-science reportage:

FLINT, Mich.--The French ability to remain slimmer than Americans despite a diet higher in fats and overall calorie density has puzzled nutritionists for decades. But a new study suggests that scientists are looking in the wrong place for the secret of Gallic leanness, and that staying svelte may have nothing to do with food at all.
"The answer is swallowed consonants," said Dr. Eric Gross, professor of biology at Lester College in Flint. "We're finding that the pronunciation of these sounds can induce a feeling of satiety in French speakers, and can lead, over the long-term, to lower body weight."
In French phonology, nearly all terminal consonants tend to be 'swallowed'--silenced via a complex sequence of mouth and throat movements. Researchers still debate the mechanism by which these movements result in feelings of fullness. Nevertheless, most scientists have focused their investigations on the flow and vibration of air in speakers' nasal passages. The hypothalamus--which regulates hunger--sits directly above these passages, and may be affected by air movements beneath.
Regardless of the cause, the salutary effects of French phonology remain certain. Dr. Gross' correlational study, soon to be published in the journal Nomos, reveals that university students enrolled in French language classes actually dropped four to six pounds during the course of a twelve-week semester.
"Obviously, the degree of weight-loss increases in language-immersion programs, like the Lester College Junior Year Abroad in Aix-en-Provence," Dr. Gross said.
Some scientists have rejected the new data, citing smaller portion size in French culture, or the effects of increased wine consumption, as the real determinants of Gallic thinness. But Dr. Gross predicts that these researchers will abandon their theories when faced with the flood of data from a global swallowed-consonant craze.
"They'll be eating their words, like everyone else," Dr. Gross said.

Before you start Googling for a biologist named Eric Gross, a journal called Nomos, or a Lester College with a campus in Flint, Michigan and a year-abroad program in Aix-en-Provence, first familiarize yourself with WWN's disclaimer: "the reader should suspend disbelief for the sake of enjoyment." And honestly, if mainstream news outlets are going to feed us nonsense about cow dialects and female volubility, then I think we might as well enjoy pseudoscience in its pure unadulterated form.

(Hat tip, Barry Popik.)

[Update: See this Languagehat post and comments thereon for further discussion.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at October 15, 2006 10:31 PM